The dastardly suicide bombing of a CRPF convoy on 14th February 2019 in Pulwama, Jammu & Kashmir by Jaish E Mohammad was the worst attack on Indian security forces over two decades martyring nearly 41 CRPF Jawans from across India travelling on Jammu-Srinagar highway. Its effects will reverberate for months and years to come. The Uri terrorist attack in September 2016 was retaliated with surgical strikes by the Indian Army across Line of Control marking a tactical shift of owning up to covert operations carried out across LOC. The surgical strikes post Uri set a new benchmark for an Indian response to cross border terrorism sponsored by Pakistan. The Pulwama terror attack thus mandated a more muscular and effective response to the Pakistan army and its jihadi battalions by an enraged India demanding vengeance for the attack carried out by Jaish E Mohammad whose chief Maulana Masood Azhar roams around Pakistan with impunity.
The Indian response to Pulwama marked a paradigm shift in strategy in countering terror emanating across the border in Pakistan. The response to Pakistan sponsored terror was hybrid with India first withdrawing Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status under WTO trade regime and imposing 200% tariffs on imports from Pakistan. These low hanging fruits brought cement exports from Pakistan to a halt as trucks stood stranded on Wagah border. It is an open secret that most trade/industries in Pakistan are controlled by Pakistani Army and its generals through various companies. Along with trade/economic measures, a diplomatic offensive was mounted with India inviting envoys from P5 countries, ASEAN, SAARC and the Middle East giving them complete dossiers and proof of Pakistani involvement in aiding and abetting the Pulwama terror attack claimed by Jaish E Mohammad.
The diplomatic efforts of Government of India bore fruit with US National Security Advisor John Bolton expressing solidarity with Indian NSA Ajit Doval and backing India’s ‘Right of Self Defence’ against terror emanating from territories in Pakistan. The backing followed by France in India’s open support led to USA moving UNSC for a fresh resolution to sanction Masood Azhar, JeM’s chief in Pakistan under UNSC sanction list which China has been blocking for years now. The resolution had the backing of US, France, UK and Russia forcing China to make its stand in support of terror clear in the weeks to follow. The Chinese backing to Pakistan has been clearly visible as China even attempted to block UNSC condemnation of Pulwama attack by sticking on issues/wordings of the statement; asking for “Indian Occupied Kashmir” and avoiding mention of Jaish E Mohammad. The Americans and French lobbied heavily for India with other UNSC members thus overcoming the Chinese objections that was finally issued a week after the Pulwama attack clearly mentioning Jammu & Kashmir and Jaish E Mohammad as a terrorist group.
In view of the frontal Chinese opposition to India and its backing of Pakistan, India further strengthened its diplomatic offensive as its NSA Ajit Doval dialed NSA of US, France, Russia and UK detailing them about India’s intentions to take action on terror groups operating in Pakistan in view of Pulwama. Through diplomatic channels India build a watertight case for a military operation across the border in POK and Pakistan marking a paradigm shift in the Indian security and defence doctrine. On 26th February 2019 at around 3:45 AM IST, the Indian Airforce (IAF) carried our airstrikes on Jaish E Mohammad terrorist camps operating in Balakot, Chakothi and Muzaffarabad with 12 Mirage 2000 Jets dropping approximately 1000 kg of bombs on these sites. This is probably the first time IAF crossed the Line of Control and struck deep into Khyber Pakhtun province of Pakistan after 1971 War. This attack on JeM terror training camp using pre-GPS fed Israeli-made Spice 2000 smart missiles is estimated to have killed scores of terrorist operatives stationed at the terror camp. (The Indian govt is yet to release the exact numbers). IAF had also sent a decoy of Sukhoi SU 30s towards Bahawalpur to confuse PAF about the real targets in Balakot simultaneously. The IAF successfully carried out the operation whilst making it clear that it was a non-military operation targeting the terror groups not the Pakistan state or its military establishment or its civilians. The Indian side also made it clear it did not want further escalation.
The Pakistani Army (DGISPR) initially confirmed that Indian Airforce entered Pakistan airspace while denying the strike on JeM facility stating that IAF simply dropped the payload and scrambled back once intercepted by Pakistani Airforce’s F-16 Jets. These vociferous denials were followed by calls for retribution with the Pakistani polity baying for Prime Minister Imran Khan and COAS General Bajwa to retaliate against Indian Air Strikes in Pakistan. However, given the heightened state of alert and hysteria, the PAF responded to IAF strikes in 24 hours when 20 of its jets comprising F-16’s, Mirages & JF-17 intruded into Indian Airspace across the LOC in Rajouri in Jammu & Kashmir in the morning of 27th February 2019.
The PAF jets were intercepted by the IAF jets comprising of Sukhoi SU-30, Mirage 2000 and MiG 21 Bison who were already on combat patrol in the Kashmir valley along the line of control. The PAF jets tried to bomb the Brigade HQ in Rajouri missing it by a whisker in a clear act of war. The PAF jets were chased back across the LOC when India’s MIG 21 Bison shot down a Pakistani F-16 while getting hit by anti-aircraft gun across the LOC. This daring dog fight on the LoC marked the first and most audacious kill of a far superior F-16 jet by a Soviet era MIG 21 Bison which the IAF operates. The Indian Pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman ejected on being shot down and landed in Pakistani occupied territory. On landing, he was attacked by the locals and later taken into custody by Pakistani Army marking the next dramatic phase in the unfolding situation between two nuclear powered neighbours. Meanwhile, the two Pakistani F-16 pilots shot down by MiG 21 also ejected; and one of them Wing Commander Shahzaz Ud Din (Son of Air Marshal Waseem ud Din, DCAS Operations of PAF) of 19 Squadron was attacked by the locals (mistaking him to be an Indian pilot) and later succumbed to the serious injuries which he suffered on landing.
The Indian government which was already in a heightened state of alert after Pulwama attack started moving infantry to its western border, mobilizing assets and troops swung into action temporary closing the airspace over North India for a few hours before reopening it by the afternoon of 27th February. Enraged by the PAF’s attempt to strike on the Indian military establishment and the captivity of its pilot Abhinandan Varthaman; the Indian government asked Pakistan to immediately release its pilot with no bargaining or conditions. Simultaneously, the Pakistani propaganda machinery went into overdrive and activated its media assets to start frenzy for the Wing Commander’s release on lines of the Kandahar hijacking to obtain an exit route. In the meanwhile, the International Community woke up to the near war scenario in the Sub Continent and asked India and Pakistan to not escalate matters further. It is believed that in aftermath of PAF aggression on Indian Military, the Indian government further moved its assets on war footing in North Western India, moving Tanks, Armoured vehicles, troops, and even deploying the Indian Navy in full force off the Gujarat Coast in operational readiness to strike in case Pakistan didnt relent on giving back the Indian Pilot as per the Geneva Convention.
On the night of 27th February 2019, seeming an immediate escalation to the PAF aggression in Rajouri, Pakistan closed its airspace while ordering blackouts in its cities from Karachi to Lahore anticipating an Indian strike in retaliation. Pakistan is expected to have dialled the Americans, Saudis along with UAE to diffuse the situation which was at the brink of a full-blown war as IAF sorties were being reported across Indian town and cities as well. The American pressure followed by Saudi on Pakistan categorically impressed upon the Pakistani civilian leadership and its military establishment to relent on any further escalation and release the Indian pilot forthwith to deescalate the crisis. By the afternoon of 1st March 2019, the International diplomatic efforts coupled with Indian military threat forced it to capitulate as Pakistani PM Imran Khan unilaterally announced the release the captive Indian Pilot Abhinandan Varthaman unconditionally bringing down the temperature several notches below from the brink of war. Abhinandan Varthaman was finally handed over to India at Wagah border crossing in late evening on 1st March 2019 after Pakistani Army released a shameful propaganda video for domestic consumption of its public. The severely edited video clearly showed Wing Commander speaking under duress with multiple bruises and cuts on his face in a clear violation of the Geneva Convention.
While the immediate crisis may have deescalated a bit from the brink of war there are no signs of hostilities ending between the two nations. While Pakistan’s “peaceful gesture” of handing over the Indian pilot was taking place, it violated ceasefire in multiple venues simultaneously clearly exhibiting the nature of its gesture. Resultantly, India opened up barrage of 155 MM artillery fire in night of 1st March across the LOC inflicting huge damage to Pakistani positions in POK. Indian military still maintains full operational readiness to strike Pakistan from Land, Sea and Air; including target terror camps at will that are operating inside Pakistan or Pakistani Occupied Jammu & Kashmir. This multi-pronged response by IAF strikes deep inside Pakistan, along with a global diplomatic offensive against anti-terror operations and the trade, economic offensive on Pakistan indeed marks a paradigm shift in the Indian security doctrine in countering Pakistan’s state sponsored terrorism low-cost warfare method of bleeding India by an thousand cuts.
The Indian military response along with diplomatic offensive has internationally isolated Pakistan with most P5 powers siding with India apart from China who also been ambivalent post IAF strikes in Pakistan. The Americans have openly come out in support of India even backing Indian counterterror ops carried out in Pakistan and cornering China at UNSC with France and UK. The deepening strategic engagement between India and US has probably been the highlight of International Diplomacy in this crisis. The Americans want a stronger India playing a proactive role in the region to corner China. Also, a weakened Pakistan under fire from India, Iran and even Afghanistan would strengthen the American hand at negotiations with Taliban in Afghanistan which Pakistan’s military and ISI has cultivated to gain strategic depth. Resultantly, China would be in a bigger fix given as it could lose the extra leverage it had over Pakistan through its hired guns in form of Jaish E Mohammad as a low cost containment of India. China is also likely to come under fire from an infuriated Donald Trump who will further target it on trade after its ‘complicated’ ally Kim Jong-un walked out of the denuclearization talks at Hanoi in Vietnam. Even the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) of whom Pakistan is a founding member snubbed Pakistan’s objection and invited India as guest of honour in Dubai clearly exemplifying India’s rise as global power and Pakistan’s growing international isolation. in all these events, India’s oldest defence partner Russia’s lack of strong statement of condemnation and participation at UNSC has been interesting and a probable sign of the growing closeness in Sino-Russian marriage of convenience. Russia’s stand has been at a complete contrast to Israel that offered “unconditional help to help India to defend itself”.
This crisis also presents an opportunity for Military Industrial Complex of US, France and Russia to offer more lucrative deals to India. Lockheed Martin whose top billed F-16 was shot down in combat by MIG 21 on LOC would now need to come up with a better offer instead of offering the F-16’s rebranded version of F-21 to India. India is also slated to be reaching out to United States on how an F-16 with AMRAAM Missile (of which it showed proof) was used against India as American manufactured jets given to Pakistan for War on terror in Afghanistan cannot be used against India who is major strategic and defence partner of United States! The Pakistani military will thus have a lot of explaining to do to Pentagon on the use of F-16s against India in combat. French MIC has been a clear winner with its Mirage doing a class act as has the Russian MIC that has been able to showcase its superior hardware. The Indian purchase of Rafale ensures better cooperation between India and France.
The international diplomacy by the Indian government, military strikes has been ably complemented by an internal crackdown on the separatist elements in the Kashmir valley with the arrest of Hurriyat leaders and banning Jamaat E Islami who has been at the forefront as Pakistan proxies abetting terror in the Jammu & Kashmir. This crackdown along with IT raids, seizures is much need measures to break the terror network and its sympathizers in J&K. Thus the Surgical Strikes 2.0 conducted by IAF on 26th February along diplomatic and economic measures mark a paradigm shift in Indian Security establishment policy in dealing with Pakistani sponsored terrorism. That fact that the Indian State and its military are now willing to push the redlines of conventional methods further, show the will and intent to strike across LOC even into Pakistan at will is a huge statement which will resonate for the times to come. It is possibly the time for the Pakistani Army and its generals to understand that from now on Pakistan will have to pay a huge cost for sponsoring and abetting terrorism against India as an instrument of state policy. The paradigm shift in India’s security and defence doctrine is reflective of a New India that will no longer take things lying down and respond in a disproportionate manner to any provocation which Pakistan may try in future.